A farrago of primary colors in acrylic and shades of charcoal black and gray explodes across the recent canvases of Chinese artist Zhong Biao. Interpolated throughout this abstraction are human figures, edifices and objects. Each bears a strong lineage to the earlier visual language that marked the artist’s signature aesthetic and set of conceptual preoccupations. In his early work, Zhong Biao constructed a visual lexicon for articulating the vicissitudes of the contemporary world in the throes of globalization.  He often accomplished this through the deft juxtaposition of iconic figures from politics, popular culture and everyday life, removed from their original contexts and set into dialogue with one another within the frames of his paintings. With these new explorations, his latest work both continues to uphold this legacy and also turns towards something more dynamic, primary and profound.


The most noteworthy change in Zhong Biao’s work is the introduction of bold expressionist swathes of color and abstractions that form the stage upon which the subtle dramas he creates take place. If before, the juxtaposition of iconic figures and objects made a powerful statement about the nature of globalization - of culture, politics, economics and the concomitant transformation of society taking place under these juggernauts of change - this new body of work transforms the very functioning of the background.  These abstract expressionist, non-figurative riffs alter—thus altering the meaning of the figurative elements that he paints, as well as offering a different sort of representational modality. The semiotic analytical tools offered by polymath pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce are useful in helping us to navigate the complex, multilayered intertextuality of this new work, in part by highlighting the critical importance of what the philosopher calls the “indexical ground” against which meaning is necessarily made: . Peirce's famous definition of the sign is as follows: “A sign…is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity… The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of "idea." This idea is the ground” against which the sign makes meaning.[1][1]


Given that the “ground” in Peirce’s formulation is determined by the observer, its representation and referential content is inherently unstable and open, leaving room for potentially infinite creative possibilities.  The Chinese concept of “hundun”, explored in greater depth below, has a similar amorphous, protean character, and is essential to the signification system that makes Zhong Biao’s new works as conceptually potent as they are visually powerful.


Like Zhong Biao’s earlier works, these new paintings continue to meditate on the contemporary state and character of our world. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued that modernity is an “unfinished project,” and as such it is “open” in ways that are homologous to Peirce’s “indexical ground.” In so far as Zhong Biao’s work grapples with the conditions of the New China in the larger context of our contemporary world, his rendering of that reality is similarly fragmented, dislocated, and as we shall see, there is a similar indeterminacy in his work as well. His images are not representations of static outcomes, but rather of dynamics and processes, of which one of the most noteworthy is globalization.


Globalization can be understood as an array of intersecting processes of unprecedented global interconnection, interaction and mobility that are transforming "various places into spaces of juxtaposition and mixture."[2][2] The concept refers, in part, to "those spatio-temporal processes of change which underpin a transformation in the organization of human affairs by linking together and expanding human activity across regions and continents."[3][3] The image of a traditional antique Chinese chair (a place of repose and stillness) juxtaposed to an ultramodern train station (a place of transit and motion), in his painting, Leisure (2011), offers a clear example of this intersection of traditional and modern, of stasis and movement. In Swinging World (2010), the genteel chair is replaced by ludic playground swings that fly high above a snaking, twisted network of highways and overpasses.


Moreover, there is a sense of temporal rupture as well as spatial dislocation. Post-modern theorist David Harvey argues that globalization can be best understood in terms of its expression in the dramatic reorganization of spatio-temporal relations. True to form, Zhong Biao’s new body of work particularly excels in its masterful handling of whatHarveycalls “space-time compression.” "Space-time compression," refers to the process by which distances are functionally shortened by the temporal accelerations of social and economic processes made possible by new technologies, particularly those of information and communication.[4][4] As a result, people across the globe are inundated by, and have access to an array of ideas, images, cultural icons and products from different times and places.[5][5] This description of post-modernity could just as easily be a description of any number of Zhong Biao’s paintings.


Yet, while the main juxtapositions used in his earlier work were among iconic figures and settings that signified key issues and events of our times, the new work forges an even bolder kind of juxtaposition. Here the figures not only relate intertextually to one another, but more importantly, a new and potent valence is brought to the fore through the juxtaposition of these representational figures with the chaotic swirl of abstract expressionist color and brushwork. Works such as Humid Season (2010) and Complex (2011) exemplify the “ground,” against which his figures and objects are foregrounded, in its pure form. To understand the salience of this sort of background/ground to the larger meaning of his work, a few words about the Chinese concept of “hundun” (混沌) are in order.


Hundun is an ancient concept in Chinese cosmology. It refers to a state of primal chaos—the flux of matter and energy prior to the formation of this inchoate matter and energy into form and order. The explosive swirl of expressionist brushstrokes as back-ground in these works can be fruitfully read in terms of the concept of hundun. Seen through this optic, they function as a signifier of this primal chaos, and state of infinite possibility encoded in the concept of hundun. Our world, with its rupture, fracture, fragmentation, dislocation and indeterminate, shifting relations, as well as heterogloss, polysemic, multiple meanings can thus be visually represented. Seen this way, hundun as back-ground effects a semiotic “indexical shift” that transforms the meanings of the figures it foregrounds.


In terms of Peircian semiotic analysis, the significations in these paintings become “multimodal shifters”—signs that operate on multiple levels simultaneously depending on the “indexical ground” against which they are held. And this “ground” coheres across this body of work. The world is undergoing radical, yet unknowable upheavals that are transforming our relationships to nearly everything, but this protean chaos is also a site of possibility to create the world anew.


It is fitting, then, that the leitmotif of journeys whose destination is unknowable, forms a thread tying together many of the works in this series, such as in the journey implied in Leisure, or that depicted by the decentered procession of automobiles in Journey (2010). Blank Pages (2011) involves a journey of a different sort. A novice monk, seen from a bird’s eye view meditates on a book in which nothing is written. Meanwhile, the invisible journey of the soul in transmigration during a traditional Tibetan “sky burial” is indexed by the vulture soaring between the mirrored images of the young monk. In Moth to a Flame (2010), two men hover in mid-flight, perhaps at the apex of a dive into the roiling hundun of chaotic, swirling color that undulates with volcanic intensity, paint gushing across the canvas like rivers of molten lava.


But while there are infinite possibilities in the hundun of the back-ground in the works, Zhong Biao also subtly alludes to journeys that have been derailed or imply a regressive trajectory—suggesting the limitations that our human arrangements sometimes place on that boundless possibility. In Home is Where… (2011) the sense of journey across a space-time compressed terra incognita is amplified by the powerful image of an old Cold War era Soviet-style locomotive, that appears to be a reference to the train on the grounds of the landmark 798 Art Factory that has been the hub of China’s contemporary art scene since 1994. Billows of steam pour from the smokestacks, yet the wheels show no signs of motion; they appear to be static, as if frozen in time, frozen, perhaps, in that bygone era of hyper-charged ideology and political struggle, which has been reinvented in recent times in a guise that is less overt, but no less effective.


Although Zhong Biao’s work does not tend to be politically confrontational, as an independent viewer one can nevertheless read this old style, motionless train[6][6] against the “indexical ground” of the current situation of returning repression cloaked as greater freedom and tolerance (within prescribed bounds) that is on the rise in today’s China. And in light of this, it is not without a certain sense of poignant irony that the chic, gamine “modern” woman in thigh-revealing attire, and the  “chuppie”[7][7] with his rolling carry-on suitcase, are walking towards the train in a direction opposite its path of motion.


Read against one another, a different sort of intertexual heteroglossia that enunciates limitless potential running up against practical limitation emerges in the juxtaposition of the various journeys suggested in these works. If the world, and hence ourselves and our relations to one another, is in the process of undergoing radical transformation—a kind of rebirth from the chaotic flux of pure potentiality and possibility—under conditions of “space-time compression” and syncretic cultural hybridity brought about by globalization, then there are spaces of creative possibility for this journey to take place, but there are limits we (collectively and/or individually) impose on that potential as well. Our journeys unfold in situ as we unmake, and remake ourselves and our world, and in doing so participate in this “unfinished project” of making modernity itself. In that light, the image of a toddler crawling into the tumultuous hundun of the unknown future in Times To Come (2011), then, simultaneously suggests our own limitations and also the basic existential necessity of the journey to our growth as both individuals, collectivities, and as a species.


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